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Book Review

Andrea Wulf - The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession
William Heinemann, 2008
Penguin Random House (Paperback) 2010

While I have learned plenty about the practicalities of growing plants in my lifetime, I have given scant attention to the courageous early explorers and travellers who first brought to our shores so many of the non-native species we now take for granted. This book tells us, in loving detail and with considerable gossip, about some key early plantsmen, the intrepid collectors, the importers and the famous early botanists who contributed so much to the gardens we know today.

Andrea Wulf, the author, was born in India and brought up in Germany. When she moved to London to train as a design historian at the Royal College of Art she was astonished to find that everyone she met appeared to be raving about gardening, so she thought she had better find out more about it herself, and that is how, as she puts it, her ‘horticultural journey began’.

As Wulf’s interest grew she visited Kew, and also the Chelsea Physic Garden where she learned about Philip Miller (1691-1771), the Scottish botanist and original head gardener, and studied his Gardener’s Dictionary, first published in 1731. This opened her eyes to the productive partnership between Philip Collinson, an English Quaker merchant, and John Bartram, 'the father of American botany’, on the other side of the Atlantic. The descriptions of Bartram’s plant collecting around his farm in colonial Pennsylvania as well as in other eastern American colonies and on the shores of Lake Ontario in the north make fascinating reading.

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Philip Miller’s portrait in the French edition
of his Gardener’s Dictionary
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John Bartram

Wulf also encountered Thomas Fairchild (1667-1729), the nurseryman and florist who established what became a famous nursery at Hoxton to the east of London, where he created, almost without realising it, the first known hybrid. This was a cross between a carnation and a sweet william – the first known ‘sexual marriage’ between plants. Most botanists of the time hotly refuted the argument that plants could reproduce sexually but Fairchild’s ‘mule’, as it came to be known, proved that this was indeed the case. Fairchild made many subsequent experiments, grafting plants on to different rootstocks and gathering together as many foreign species as he could – including some from the elder and younger John Tradescants’ ventures a century before.

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Fairchild’s ‘mule’

In time the discovery of the ‘mule’ reached the ears of the President of the famed Royal Society and Fairchild was bidden to display a dried example of this plant. Sir Hans Sloane, then Secretary of the Royal Society, Physician to King George I, a knowledgeable and ardent collector of plants, antiquities, insects, butterflies, shells and fossils, presided over that meeting; he was thus able to appreciate Fairchild’s ground-breaking discovery. Today Fairchild lies buried at St Leonard’s church in Shoreditch and the Worshipful Company of Gardeners venerates him every year on the first Tuesday of Pentecost.

The Quaker merchant Peter Collinson was a rich Londoner who became consumed by his passion for plants. He was lucky enough to be able to indulge this passion thanks to his inheritance of a successful cloth business which he continued to expand to a ready market in North America and the West Indies. As he had access to American shipping he was able to import seeds from the New World as well as from other parts of Europe. On asking a fellow Quaker merchant how to obtain seeds from North America he was recommended to John Bartram; thus began a friendship that lasted for more than thirty years.

It was a rocky, frequently stormy, relationship: the insults that Collinson aimed at Bartram’s head from time to time were more than most mortal men would have stood for, but Bartram needed the money for his plant hunting. He was also fired with enthusiasm to seek out new and unusual plant species; his many excursions take up a good chapter of the book and are exciting reading. Collinson distributed his imported seeds to British gentry, nurserymen and natural scientists.

Phillip Miller in the meantime continued to expand the Chelsea Physic Garden and to update his Gardener’s Dictionary, the most innovative of its kind, supplemented with his own observations.

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Frontispiece from the Gardener’s Dictionary
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The Gardener’s Dictionary, eighth edition

In 1727 he travelled to Holland where he met Herman Boerhaave, professor of Medicine and Botany at Leiden. The fine botanic garden of Leiden encouraged Miller to introduce a huge array of new plants to Chelsea and to build one of the first greenhouse ‘tan-stoves’ where exotics such as the pineapple could be grown. However, with the expansion of various plant collections came the knotty question of how to name them correctly.

Up till now this had been done in a haphazard fashion, each nurseryman describing a plant in his own words that varied from nurseryman to nurseryman, creating confusion. But who should arrive on the scene but a very opinionated young Swede called Carl Linnaeus (1707-78). Wulf’s description does not encourage us to love Linnaeus personally, but we are all eternally grateful for his ground-breaking contribution to taxonomy. At first Linnaeus encountered opposition, even enmity, from the botanical establishment and he realised that to make any headway he should ingratiate himself with Sir Hans Sloane, then the most important man in the world of botany. Sloane had his own system of classification and did not recognise Linnaeus’s method of counting the pistils and stamens – others even accused him of being unduly preoccupied with sex, so offending their ‘amour propre’.

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Statue of Carl Linnaeus as a university student
Lund, Sweden
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Sir Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter, 1736
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Undaunted, Linnaeus visited Phillip Miller at Chelsea to try to persuade him to adopt his method but Miller too was dismissive of both Linnaeus and his ideas, although he finally mellowed somewhat to the smug and self-opinionated man. The Americans, however, were more broad-minded and greeted the new taxonomy with enthusiasm and, much to Collinson’s fury, John Bartram was particularly interested in this new method of classification.

From England Linnaeus returned to Holland, where he had been working before his visit to England and learned that his ideas were further ridiculed there; then the head of the botanic garden in St. Petersburg joined the argument, printing an attack on this sexually-based taxonomy, saying, ‘under no circumstances would God have allowed such outrageous relationships’ and adding that the whole system was ‘loathsome harlotry’. And so Linnaeus was obliged to return to his native Sweden thoroughly discouraged, but his shattered dignity was soon assuaged when he was offered a professorship at the University of Uppsala.

And he was not idle; he started his survey of every known plant which he produced in 1753 under the name of Species Plantarum. This was of such importance that it eclipsed his Systema Naturae which introduced for the first time his binominal nomenclature; that is to say, each plant was given a ‘surname’ – the genus – and a ‘Christian’ name – the species. However, like Linnaeus’s earlier work this too ran up against hot opposition from most of the botanists of the day – except in America where, as before, people were much more open-minded. So, in order to encourage the English to accept his system, Linnaeus sent his favourite pupil Daniel Solander to England, where he stayed with the gardener/nurseryman James Gordon at his nursery at Mile End, to the east of London.

In the meantime, American plants were arriving in England in huge numbers from John Bartram, and Collinson was introducing them to the Duke of Bedford at Woburn, the Earl of Jersey at Middleton Park, the Duke of Richmond at Goodwood and, last but not least, ‘his most Valuable and Intimate Friend’ the 8th Baron Petre, the renowned horticulturalist, pioneer of hothouse ‘stoves’, creator of magnificent gardens and a keen planter of North American trees in particular. Collinson himself had now moved to Mill Hill where he greeted Solander and took an immediate liking to him, but Linnaeus’s pupil soon created problems for his mentor. He ran out of money, he did not keep Linnaeus informed of English news; finally, he stopped writing altogether and it was six years before Linnaeus heard from his pupil again.

There was a good reason for the silence as in 1768 Solander was invited to join the famous 100-foot-long Endeavour, a former coal ship, with ‘ninety-three other brave men’, financed by the young Joseph Banks. Banks was not only a keen botanist but the very rich heir to the Revesby Abbey estate in Lincolnshire, so he was able to put up £10,000 for this botanical adventure. The captain was of course James Cook, who was none too pleased to have his ship turned into a floating plant nursery.

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Dr Daniel Solander, Sir Joseph Banks, Captain James Cook,
Dr John Hawkesworth and Earl Sandwich by John Hamilton Mortimer, 1771

The story of their three-year voyage to Tahiti, Australia and New Zealand is spellbinding. Joseph Banks thereafter became one of Britain’s most famous botanists. In time he persuaded George III to transform the royal garden at Kew into the world’s largest collection of plant species, becoming its director in 1773 and president of the Royal Society in 1778. Carl Linnaeus died in the same year and his son, also Carl, was appointed professor of Botany. A year later the favoured pupil, Solander, also died.

From England Linnaeus returned to Holland, where he had been working before his visit to England and learned that his ideas were further ridiculed there; then the head of the botanic garden in St. Petersburg joined the argument, printing an attack on this sexually-based taxonomy, saying, ‘under no circumstances would God have allowed such outrageous relationships’ and adding that the whole system was ‘loathsome harlotry’. And so Linnaeus was obliged to return to his native Sweden thoroughly discouraged, but his shattered dignity was soon assuaged when he was offered a professorship at the University of Uppsala.

Banks is also long remembered for promoting the voyage of the Bounty in 1787-88, captained by William Bligh. The main reasons for the voyage were to observe from Tahiti the Transit of Venus and to transfer the breadfruit tree and other economic plants from Tahiti to the West Indies in order to provide food for the islands’ slaves. This notorious voyage is well known; sadly, all the plants collected were thrown overboard by the mutinous crew. However, Banks organised a second voyage in 1793 in the ship Providence, also commanded by Bligh, which was a complete success. In parenthesis I add that in the beautiful Botanical Garden on St. Vincent I have seen the third generation of one of those first breadfruit trees brought to the West Indies.

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Blighia sapida, one of four species of a genus
named in William Bligh’s honour
Painting by Marianne North, Kew Gallery
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Artocarpus altilis (Breadfruit)
Drawing by John Frederick Miller 1759 - 1796

After the death of Carl Linnaeus Junior, Banks was offered in 1784 Linnaeus Senior’s entire collection of books, manuscripts and specimens. The Herbarium alone included 14,000 plants, and there were fish, shells and insects too. But Banks turned down the offer and instead it was purchased for £1000 by one of his former pupils, the distinguished botanist James Edward Smith who, with Banks, founded the Linnaean Society.

All England now appeared to embrace botany, the passion perhaps best summed up in 1791 by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), grandfather to Charles, in the poem ‘The Loves of the Plants’ – the second part of the larger volume The Botanic Garden which quickly became the most talked about poem of the day because in highly elegant language it maintained that sexual reproduction was at the heart of evolution. Erasmus Darwin also produced translations from the Latin of Linnaeus’s works, including Systema Naturae – A System of Vegetables (1783-85) and The Families of Plants (1787), all highly acclaimed.

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The Botanic Garden by Erasmus Darwin, 1791
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Systema Naturae by Carl Linnaeus, 1736

English garden designs and styles now became widely adopted on the Continent and in North America. English garden books, notably Collinson’s dictionary and Darwin’s writings, were translated into Italian, French, German, Russian and Portuguese. Everyone clamoured to own a garden which could produce new and strange plants that had been imported from the New World. A new era of gardening was here to stay.

In her epilogue Wulf describes a visit to Worlitz near Dessau to trace the English influence there. She saw how her protagonists – to use her word – had influenced this landscape with American paper birches, kalmias, magnolias, catalpas and other North American plants. She also found this influence in plenty with little temples, and bridges dotted around different parts of the garden, but it was not, she said, ‘the real thing’ because it seemed to her so contrived, whereas such foreign additions in English gardens seemed to nestle comfortably into the landscape.

The glossary in Wulf ’s book is helpfully complete and informative, describing the origins of all the plants mentioned and many more; it is a great source of knowledge from which I, for one, have hugely benefited.

Review by Joanna Millar - Mediterranean Gardening France

The images shown here are not in the book but have been gathered from the public domain by Marjorie Orr

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